Lessons from Labour

Some time back, I wrote about the lessons from the fall-out from One Alfred Place’s change of strategy, which was seen by some members as a voiding of the terms under which they joined the Club. We may now be seeing similar patterns at play in political party membership.

Maybe it’s something about the British loving an underdog, but Labour Party membership dramatically increased – with daily recruitment levels up 1000% (though from what must have been very low numbers based on a back of the envelope calculation) – on May 7th, the day when its defeat in the UK election became apparent.  New members are now joining in their thousands, enough to crash the site.*

So why the increase? One possibility is that apathetic support has been galvanised into firm committed giving due to a sense of need that was not previously felt.

Another suggested possibility (though there is as yet no evidence to support this) is that some of these new members are disaffected Liberal Democrat members, concerned at what has been perceived by some as a breach of contract: along the One Alfred Place model.  This is the tactic being pursued by the Green Party, which has issued an open offer to former Liberal Democrats to join them, and others have suggested that Labour should pursue this model.  Members joining Labour since Tuesday may also have been incentivised by the opportunity to have a vote in the recently announced leadership elections.

These suggest three key areas for membership organisations as they compete to attract and keep members: the necessity of showing genuine need for membership (Why should I join?), the need to demonstrate that mission will not stray (Am I joining what I thinking I’m joining?).  The third area to some extent answers and combines the first two into the need to convey the real importance of each membership (Do I have a say?).  All of these conclusions are backed up by our own research, undertaken as part of the Future of Membership project.

But still, why join an organisation the day it has seemingly failed?  In our research, some focus group participants told us that they felt a lack of connection to large charitable membership organisations, since they felt that their presence [or lack of it] made little difference to the charity, economically or practically.  This was truer of membership organisations whose marketing focussed on tangible benefits offered to the members than those who were skilled at stressing the organisation’s need for members and the role a potential member could play.  Members did not feel the same way about local sub-groups of larger charities or small local organisations, to which they felt strong personal connections.  In other words, unless members feel their membership matters there’s no compelling reason (beyond pure self interest) to join or stay.

As the old saying goes, never let a good crisis go to waste.  It will be interesting to see whether the membership increase for Labour is a blip or whether it continues to rise, and how much the party drives such an increase rather than passively welcoming the upsurge.  We have discussed in some depth in our research the seemingly obvious – but often undervalued – truism that one of the most crucial decisive factors in membership levels is how much an organisation wants members (rather than just, say, increased income overall), and how much internal resource it is willing to put behind recruiting, engaging and keeping them.

As electoral reform for the political system at large is a hot ticket under a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, democratic processes within political parties (see a previous brief post here) will also come under scrutiny. The coalition government has agreed “to pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics”. 

And as I have written before in the context of Open Primaries, the Conservative Party seems keen to be at the forefront of transforming political party membership.

These kind of legislative changes may drive political parties to try to increase their membership levels for more than purely financial reasons. If such trends take hold, they are likely to have an impact on civil society membership too, particularly in the way that an organisation’s legitimacy is understood and measured.


*It is difficult to get accurate figures of political party membership.  However, it is clear that membership of the three main political parties has been in decline since the 1960s, with rapid increases in the much smaller memberships of minority parties over the past decade.  This excellent report estimates the 2008 memberships at 250 000 (Conservative), 166 000 (Labour) and 60 000 (Liberal Democrat). 


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Last updated at 12:15 Fri 14/May/10.
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The only really useful study of Labour party membership shows that most people join to get rid of the Tories. So it follows that membership would increase once Labour loses power.

My hunch is that as much as it wants members, Labour doesn't have the energy or the resources to really take care of them. Simple things like a magazine to all members happens sometimes less than anually.

A few quick, random, ill-thought through and possibly contradictory thoughts on this:

On a purely anecdotal level, quite a few friends who have rejoined Labour have done so having left the party for all the reasons membership organisations often lose people - sense of alienation, powerlessness, not really wanted, disenchantment with performance - all of which remained in place and as 'true' on May 11th as they were in the years leading up to May 6th. Yet they still rejoined.

It reminded more than anything of a wake - a need of people feeling a particular emotion to be with each other to celebrate their in-commonness. Essentially, all these people were so horrified by the thought of the new Government that they wanted to do something proactive, (and I can't prove it, but wonder if there's something penitential and redemptive too in the rejoining).

What this seems to demonstrate is that values-based organisations ultimately must remember that they are values-based. It's a source of frustration for officers as the meaning of those values and the way they translate into action are subject to much more contestation than in more service-based membership organisations, but ultimately it's a source of huge strength too. Despite it all, these disaffected and disenchanteds came back. It's somewhat reminiscent of couples perennially separating then re-uniting.

Another factor is how people's sense of their own identity is reflected in an organisation. These returnees see themselves as of the left (as much as on the left) and in office, the dissonance between that sense and Labour's record seemed too great; were Labour now of the right? But the moment the party lost office, the dissonance collapsed as a new right came into position and so redefined Labour as not-right (as they've had no time to do anything that might reposition themselves, the repositioning must be an affect of another factor) which could well be a left.

In that way, it's also a nailed-on example of the truism that oppositionalism is easier to organise that support for incumbents; on the day they left office, the dissonance between one's values and Labour's performance in office collapsed. Whether its performance in opposition re-opens that is a moot point and an interesting one to follow.

It does suggest that the idea of a mass party which also holds power is almost impossible to achieve. Values-based organisations can constantly be accused of betrayal, because the mode of campaigning to achieve victory gives freer rein to the kind of passion which is less suited to the nature of holding office. An interesting case study then would be a campaigning group who maintained a membership even though in many respects, they had achieve victory.

Katherine's picture


Specialist Editor

Matt, Dave, many thanks for your very interesting thoughts.

It’s telling that between you, you point to a tension: is Labour a values-based movement (which by its nature works best in opposition), or a membership organisation with a fee given for a benefit (such as voting rights or a magazine). It is of course both – and this is where tensions come from.

Dave, your points on oppositionalism are interesting, and I think the question here is (in part) what does success look like. You ask about cases of campaigning groups who have achieved victory and I think this is where political parties fail, often at the first rhetorical hurdle. If we compare something like Amnesty, Greenpeace or the Fawcett society, even with legislative victories they are able to assert that there are still many more battles to be won and use successes as a spur to keeping and driving up membership. On the other hand, political parties are so focussed on gaining electoral power that they fail adequately to convey that forming a government is the beginning rather than the end of political struggle. The conservative party’s structural difference between opposition and government strongly reflect this.

Incidentally, Progress has recently called for a radical reduction in membership fees for joining members as part of a drive to reinvigorate the membership. It would be interesting to know how many of the new members are indeed new members and how many are rejoiners.

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